The legend of the Headless Horseman
The Headless Horseman: Legend of the Black Swamp’s haunted plains
He passed through the camp like a phantom, causing the cattle to rush and the dogs to shrink away ... terror would follow ... cattle, dogs, drovers all in a wild stampede.
— J.E.P Bushby
“WHEN the lands were wide and the fences few, uneasy was the stockman when the sun was down and his thousand charges scattered for miles around the camp fire ... He would remember the story they were telling around Bourke ... that the Headless Horseman was again haunting the plains at the Black Swamp near the border ...”
From the mists of time a shadow emerged and a legend began.
We are sitting at a roadside rest area on the edge of the Hay Plains, the flattest area in the Southern Hemisphere.
Saltbush plains stretch as far as the eye can see. And here at the Black Swamp the Cobb Highway takes one of its very few bends.
We are about halfway between Deniliquin and Hay, waiting for the sunset. And anyone who has been to western New South Wales will know how spectacular they can be.
This is the heart of The Long Paddock, a 600km-plus tourist drive that remembers the heritage of drovers while promoting the old stock route from Moama on the Murray River to Wilcannia to the north of Broken Hill.
It crosses five rivers – Darling, Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, Edward and Murray – and in an interesting concept uses artistic works to highlight the story of the land.
To stop and view The Headless Horseman sculptures at the Black Swamp at sunset is one of the great outback Australian experiences.
The Headless Horseman sculptures are part of a Long Paddock series ... 11 major art works and 52 information points along the route.
The Headless Horseman, created in metal by Castlemaine sculptor Geoff Hocking, is between Wanganella and Boorooban.
In the mid 19th-century, drovers told stories of a headless horseman who appeared suddenly at a campsite, mounted and wearing a cloak, who would spook the animals and cause a stampede.
It was said to be the ghost of a drover who died at the swamp. Yet there’s more to this legend.
Ali McLean, from Booligal, a good hour’s drive north of the Black Swamp, is one of those involved in the Long Paddock touring route.
As the sun started to sink behind the sculpture, she told me the ARTback project started in 2009 to create five sculptures along the route.
It was to encourage visitors to the region and attracted 180 submissions, leaving the committee to choose the ones considered most appropriate.
The Headless Horseman sculptures stand four metres high, made from laser-cut steel with a rusty patina, and set atop three-metre long red-gum posts.
They depict a cattle drive, with two mounted drovers, cattle dogs and a separate character ... the headless horseman.
The legend was perpetuated by a local butcher from nearby Moulamein, who was a small-time cattle duffer stealing from the herds camped at the swamp and selling his goods through the pubs across the district.
The Black Swamp not only hosts a legend but helped open up the plains country. A shallow basin almost one kilometre across, the swamp is covered with lignum bushes and partly fringed with black box trees. When full, the water is about waist deep.
It was thought it got its name from the dark colour of the water from decaying plant matter but early maps show a tribe of Aborigines usually camped there. This is supported by the presence of at least one large midden on the perimeter.
The Black Swamp hosted a coach changing station from 1859, when Edward Smith built a cottage as well on the low sandhill at the eastern edge of the swamp. Eventually he started the Black Swamp (Trotting Cob) Hotel that closed in 1887.
Ali tells me there is another sculpture at Ivanhoe – The Pioneers, a spectacular three-dimensional mural by Wayne Strickland that documents the history of the district.
Three sculptures at Hay started a whole new program.
In the area known as Bushy Bend, on the northern eastern side of the Murrumbidgee River, you will find Lang’s Crossing, Cobb’s Wheels and Murrumbidgee Landscapes, all by John Wheeler.
At Pretty Pine you will find Smoko, by Geoff Hocking.
There are two works in Deniliquin, both by Jonathan Leahy – Shod, a half bullock shoe in honour of the bullock teams that carted the wool bales to a wharf for shipment. Those wharves could have been at Hay or Moama. The other is Cut, a circular saw blade and log to honour the timber industry.
Two more artworks are in Mathoura – The Drover and Horse by Corey Thomas plus the Timber Cutters by Geoff Hocking.
In Moama, near the Kerrebee Sound Shell off the Cobb Highway, you will find The Barges, also by Geoff Hocking (2012).
Ali, from Sydney originally, tells me about life at Booligal, made famous by a Banjo Paterson poem: Hay and Hell and Booligal.
Apparently Paterson’s version of Hell related to the One Tree Hotel at Ulonga, midway between Hay and Booligal.
Today it is an attraction, showing country life at its hottest, driest and flattest. While last drinks were served at the pub in 1984 it is now used as an events centre.
Ali’s journey from Sydney to Booligal started with an invitation from her school friend to come out west to a rugby reunion for the Hillston Hay Cutters.
That’s where she met Hamish McLean, who was to become her husband.
At Booligal they have about 11,300 hectares, which is a bit on the small side by outback New South Wales standards, Ali says. But they run dorper sheep on saltbush because of its drought tolerance in extreme conditions.
“The strong flavour of the saltbush gives the meat a softer taste with better marbling,’’ Ali says. “A bit like waygu beef in that regard.”
The dorper breed was developed in South Africa in the 1930s and introduced into Australia in 1996.
It is becoming one of the fastest growing sheep breeds due to their potential to adapt to the many varying climates and grazing conditions that Australia has to offer.
Dorpers were bred to produce a high quality carcase under extensive conditions, thus have the reputation of rapid weight gain, excellent carcase conformation and fantastic fat distribution.
Booligal, which means windy place, large swamp or place of flooded box trees, is on the Lachlan River and at the heart of the Long Paddock.
The term came about from graziers being able to turn their stock out onto “the long paddock” in times of drought or to take them to market.
It started with the Victorian gold rush in the mid-1800s, Ali tells me, when cattle were brought down from Queensland.
“There was no way of keeping meat fresh on the gold field in those days so they made sure there was plenty of live stock.’’
Today, property owners can apply to Local Land Services to use the stock route when feed is short.
Yet they have to move the stock every day.
While Local Land Services controls it, the drovers themselves know when it is needed or can support it.
People have a romantic idea about droving, Ali says, such as Paterson’s famous Clancy of The Overflow.
“As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.’’
But it’s bloody hard work, I am reminded. You have to get the animals watered every day.
Really, the drover’s life hasn’t changed much since the 1870s.
THE BLACK SWAMP
The legend of the Headless Horseman arose when a drover named Doyle died at the Black Swamp in the early 1850s.
The drovers would tell of having seen the ghost of Doyle while they were camped at the swamp.
The said Doyle was riding about the camp at night on a short-legged horse – a trotting cob.
Overlanders began to dread camping there, believing sight of the apparition spelled their own doom.
Writers at the time did not state the manner of Doyle’s death but the legend persevered in the form of a headless rider mounted on a trotting cob.
The legend has been handed down through the years.
J.E.P Bushby’s Saltbush Country tells how he would appear suddenly, mounted on a cob, a cloak wrapped around him – but without a head.
“He passed through the camp like a phantom, causing the cattle to rush and the dogs to shrink away ... terror would follow ... cattle, dogs, drovers all in a wild stampede.” Advantage was taken of this legend by the Moulemein butcher to augment his meat supplies.
When the bush telegraph told of the approach of a mob of “old Tyson’s” cattle he would camp at the Black Swamp and await their arrival.
His technique was to throw a cloak over a wooden frame on his shoulders, giving the appearance of the stump of a neck but having no head.
He approached the resting herd at a trot, knowing that cattle on strange ground are easily spooked.
Having put the cattle on their feet he would cut off a few head, drive them into the bracken around the swamp and later drive them leisurely to slaughter, to end up on the cutting carts of Moulemein, Hay and Deniliquin.
The horseman was wise enough to confine his duffing to small numbers so was never molested by the attention of the troopers.
These activities continued until the fencing of the runs made the movement of stock too difficult.
Charlie Lee, who drove the Deniliquin-Hay coach for years, claimed that he saw the horseman in action.
The story goes that Charlie saw the trotting cob taking its headless rider home to die.
Perhaps a fitting postscript to what is one of the finest legends in the whole outback of Australia.
On the flattest plains in the Southern Hemisphere, you can discover the legend of the Headless Horseman as part of the Long Paddock series of art sculptures.
OLD TALE: The Headless Horseman sculpture at sunset is one of the great outback Australian experiences.
The Long Paddock crosses five rivers and cuts through the Hay Plains, as it follows the outback stock routes.
The Long Paddock tourist route along the Cobb Highway remembers the heritage of drovers while promoting the old stock route from Moama on the Murray River to Wilcannia to the north of Broken Hill.
The Headless Horseman, a dramatic artwork created in metal by Castlemaine sculptor Geoff Hocking, at the Black Swamp between Wanganella and Boorooban.
Booligal’s Ali McLean talks about the ARTback project that started the Long Paddock sculptures.